de France Basics
The Tour de France is in its final week and it's not too late to catch the action, especially with US rider, Levi Leipheimer, in contention for the win. Below is a 10-minute crash-course on the Tour de France. You can learn the basics and sound like a fan. Learn the difference between sprinters and climbers. Understand terms like peloton and how the scoring system works. Know the difference between the yellow and polka-dot jerseys.
Each year, about 200 cyclists take on the grueling
challenge of completing roughly 2,000 miles in
just 20 days. This test of endurance, teamwork,
and strategy makes the Tour de France the most
popular live sporting event in the world. More
people attend the Tour each year than attend the
World Cup, Super Bowl, Olympics, or any other
sporting event. Below is a brief write-up to help
you understand why the Tour captivates such an
The Tour de France dates back to 1903 when Henri
Desgranges, a French journalist, started the race
as a publicity stunt for his sports newspaper.
Object of the race
The Tour de France is a “stage” cycling
race, meaning that there are multiple days, or
stages, that comprise the race. The racer with
the lowest accumulated time over the 20 stages
is the winner. There are also several races within
the race, such as the Points Competition and Mountains
Competition (see below).
Length of race &
The exact length varies because the route changes
each year, but the race runs approximately 2,000
miles and is broken into 20 stages. The course
is raced primarily in France, but several neighboring
countries are visited as well. The race always
finishes in Paris on the famous Champs-Elysees.
The terrain throughout the course varies from
relatively flat rides through the countryside
to huge mountain climbs. The mountains fall into
five classifications. Four is the easiest classification,
followed by three, two, one, and Hors (too steep
to classify). The Tour is so tough that many of
the world’s best cyclists are unable to
complete the race because of fatigue, sickness,
injury, or inability to maintain a pace under
the daily maximum time threshold.
General Classification (Yellow
Jersey or maillot jaune): This is the
primary race. General Classification, or GC, is
the accumulated time each rider has throughout
all of the stages. Each day, the rider with the
lowest GC wears a yellow jersey to identify him
as the overall race leader. The rider that crosses
the finish line on the last day with the lowest
GC wins the Tour de France. It is very prestigious
to wear the jersey, even for just a day.
(Green Jersey): A secondary race during the Tour
is the Point Competition. Points are earned every
time a rider is a top finisher in the intermediate
sprints and stage races. The rider (usually a
sprint specialist) that accumulates the most points
wears the green jersey.
(Polka Dot Jersey): Another secondary race is
for the “King of the Mountain.” Points
are earned for being a top finisher over the categorized
mountain climbs. The rider (usually a mountain
specialist) that accumulates the most mountain
points wears a red and white polka dotted jersey.
Several other jerseys include
the Best Young Rider (white jersey) for riders
under 26 with the lowest General Classification
time and the Fighting Spirit (white on red jersey)
for being the most aggressive rider.
Corporations sponsor teams of 9 members who are
not necessarily from the same country. Within
each team, there are several roles.
(patron): Teams usually have one member that is
their contender for winning the race. The team
leader must be a good all around racer and is
usually a strong mountain climber and time trialist.
However, without the support of his team members,
the leader has no chance to win the tour.
These riders are the worker bees whose job it
is to give the team leader the best shot of winning.
They block the wind for the leader, protect him,
stop breakaways, and fetch food and water for
the rest of the team.
Sprinting specialists focus on the secondary race
of the Points Competition (green jersey). These
racers are usually large, strong riders. They
also support the leader.
Climbers: Climbing specialists focus on the secondary
race of winning the Mountains Competition (polka
dot jersey). These racers are usually smaller,
lighter riders. They also support the leader.
Peloton: Most of the race is
made up of relatively flat terrain. The racers
form a peloton, or large group of racers, in order
to be as efficient as possible. In the peloton,
cyclists reduce wind resistance by “drafting”
off other racers (also know as “slipstream”).
Leading the peloton is the most tiring, and racers
take turns in the lead.
Sometimes a few racers will attempt to get ahead
of the pack and hold on to a lead to win the stage
or an intermediate sprint. Most often, the peloton
or a few other racers will “chase”
them down before they achieve their goal. The
efficiency of the peloton can overcome even large
leads created on a breakaway of several riders.
Breakaways and chases are an exciting strategy
and component of the race.
If no racers have made a breakaway, the peloton
will “bunch sprint” at the end of
a stage or intermediate sprint. Team members may
“lead-out,” a strategy in which the
sprinters draft behind a teammate, to get the
sprinters in position just before the finish line.
Racers who finish within one bike length of a
group are all given the time of the first racer
in the group. This is to prevent dangerous mass
Within a stage there are often several intermediate
sprints that count towards the Points Competition
(green jersey). The sprinters and a few teammates
will increase their pace and position themselves
for a victory. As with stage finishes, teammates
usually “lead-out” for the sprinter.
Following the sprint, the exhausted sprinters
fall back into the pack of the peloton.
Within a stage there are often several category
climbs that count towards the Mountain Competition
(polka dot jersey). Racing up mountains is much
slower, so the advantage of forming a peloton
is diminished. Big leads can be opened up on the
mountain races by mountain specialists and team
leaders. In fact, some of the sprinters and larger
racers struggle to avoid the daily time limit
on the difficult climbs. These slower riders often
become part of the “autobus,” a pace
just faster than what they need to qualify.
Some riders are not contenders for the overall
race, but it is very prestigious to win a stage
of the Tour. They will strategize to accomplish
a stage win.
Intermediate sprints and stage wins offer incentives
of time reductions for the top finishers. In the
beginning of the Tour, these bonuses can be the
difference between who wears the yellow jersey.
Later in the race, the time bonus is usually not
significant enough to overthrow a leader.
Ordinary Stage: The first racer
to cross the finish line in an ordinary stage
wins the stage. These stages feature flats, hills
and mountains and can include both intermediate
sprints (for the Points Competition) and mountain
climbs (for the Mountains Competition). Stages
that focus primarily on climbing are know as “mountain
trials: Stage in which each cyclist races
alone and attempts to have the fastest time over
Team time trials
(TTT): Race in which each team races
with only its members. The team is given the time
of the 5th team member to cross the finish line.
All racers within one bike length of their fifth
racer receive the team time. There will be no
TTT in 2006.
A short individual time trial before the official
race used to determine the starting positions
of the first stage of the race.
The Tour has amazing self-enforced unwritten rules.
For example, racers will not make an attack on
a leader who has an equipment problem, is going
to the bathroom, or is in the feeding zone. Additionally,
they often let a rider lead the peloton through
his hometown or on his birthday.
Hundreds of thousands of fans line the racecourse
each day for a chance to see the race and millions
more watch the race on television. On the uphill
portion of the mountain stages, many fans line
the roads and run with the racers. One fan, known
as Didi Senft, dresses as a devil and has become
an icon of the Tour.
What to watch for in
Aussie Robbie McEwen and Thor Hushvod are both contenders for the green jersey (sprint). However, the race for the yellow jersey is wide open again this year. This is the second
year without 7-time winner Lance Armstrong (USA) because of his retirement.
Additionally, last year's winner, Floyd Landis (USA), is sitting out this year due to doping allegations. The crackdown on doping continues to be a top story, but talk will turn to the event itself as soon as the race begins. The two American riders with the best shot at winning the race are
Levi Leipheimer and
George Hincapie, both of team Discovery. Leipheimer will likely be the team leader for Discovery, but Hincapie, the former #2 behind Lance Armstrong during his winning streak, could move into the role if he races well early on.
Dates: July 7-29
Where to watch the Tour
Versus (formerly OLN): Versus provides live coverage of the Tour
in the US. Versus is included with most basic cable
packages and there is some live coverage from their website.
The official race site for the Tour.
Entertainment for Tour enthusiasts
Tour documentaries: The Tour Baby is a documentary about the 2000 tour and has attained cult classic status for cyclists and Hell on Wheels is another good documentary.
Lance Armstrong biography: You must read It's not About the Bike to truly appreciate Lance and the tour.
Other cycling movies: You may also enjoy Breaking Away or American Flyers.